We’ve been talking a lot about the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who lately; God knows I have. In most of it, though many are mentioning the previous Doctors, a lot of our discourse has been about “The Day of the Doctor,” and quite rightly; it’s going to be a multi-Doctor-splosion with (at least) three Doctors teaming up for the first official time since 1983. But, it’s also important to look back at the very beginning, because let’s face it: Without the beginning, there’d be no 50 years later. This is why the BBC docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, which tells of the creation and first three years of the series, feels like a breath of fresh yet familiar air.
Written by uberfan of the series Mark Gatiss, the drama focuses mainly on the first man to play the mysterious “Dr. Who,” William Hartnell, and his relationship with the series’ first producer, Verity Lambert, who was also the youngest and first female producer at the BBC. Also important are the Head of Drama at BBC at the time, Canadian Sydney Newman, and the show’s first director, the young Indian director Waris Hussein. The four of them are depicted as the most important people in the show’s history, and in a great many ways they were the most atypical creators of British television in history.
David Bradley portrays Hartnell, a grumpy character actor relegated to shouty military roles in movies and TV. He begins the narrative embittered and gruff towards his granddaughter, but that would change. Brian Cox plays Newman as the slick, fast-talking showman from Canada who has big ideas but leaves them to other people to realize. He created The Avengers, you know (the British TV show, not the comic books), for BBC rival ITV. He needed a 25 minute program to span a gap in programming on Saturday evenings and came up with the basic premise of a science fiction show called Doctor Who. His one mandate was: no bug-eyed aliens or men in rubber suits. That was kind of it.
He hired a former assistant, Lambert (Jessica Raine), to take control of it and shape it into something they could put on the air. Verity didn’t get taken seriously, as she was a young Jewish woman and the BBC was a middle-aged man’s world, but she has an ally in director Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), a young, gay Indian man. Their goal was to find the right lead actor for the tricky but iconic role and going through many applicants, they decided Hartnell is the best choice, though he took some convincing.
Naturally with a story like this, which did feature many, many other people who were either not mentioned, barely mentioned, or absorbed into another historical person, you’re going to have to simplify things. Gatiss does a really admirable job of focusing the film on the core relationships while still getting the overall gist of some of the other parts. For instance, Delia Derbyshire and her amazing work arranging the theme tune with the Radiophonic Workshop could be a movie unto itself, but here is a mere cutaway.
The film is at its best when it focuses on these relationships, specifically the bond between Lambert and Hartnell. While he’s very unsure about whether or not he should take the part at the beginning, Hartnell is ultimately convinced by Lambert’s positive attitude and sheer force of will, even though she’s anything but supremely confident in reality.
From the disastrous pilot taping to the show nearly getting the ax after the first four episodes to the introduction of the Daleks and the beginning of the cultural phenomenon they became (Terry Nation is mentioned but never seen), An Adventure in Space and Time, sort of only grazes the surface of the timeline, and I wish we could have somehow gotten more into the 90 minute feature, because I just wanted more of it.
At a certain point, the film which we thought was about Verity Lambert becomes about William Hartnell, in the best of ways. With Doctor Who, Hartnell experienced his first instance of real fame and really felt compelled to keep going, even as Hussein and eventually Lambert decide to embark on different careers. He felt the pressure of being the Doctor and of keeping Doctor Who going, though he simply could no longer memorize the lines or take the long hours.
One very moving scene occurs when a very gruff and stroppy Hartnell begins berating the new staff of the show as they set up for the next shot around the TARDIS console. He doesn’t like the new director and it seems like no one really cares about the show the way they once did. His final straw comes when he has to be the one to turn on the console mechanism because no one else knows. At that moment, he is the man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and Bradley assaying that role is perfect.
As much as the film celebrates the beginning of the little show that could, it also bittersweetly eulogizes the man who was the definite article. Amid all the winking nods to fan-known futures or characters espousing things said in episodes not yet made, the movie focuses on a man’s realization that he’ll never again be what he once was and the fame he’ll no longer have. It’s very moving, and the special cameo during the filming of the first regeneration only served to bring more of a glisten to the eye. It’s a show we all love, but no one loved it more first than its original star.